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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Math Facts Baseball

In two weeks, twenty-some bright and shiny faces will appear at the door of my fourth grade classroom, full of anticipation (and sadly, a little rusty due to the long summer vacation). 

Their teacher will be waiting with open arms, knowing that they will soon be hard at work on the dreaded long multiplication algorithm, closely followed by long division. Math Facts Baseball will get them ready!

I developed this game many years ago . . . and have used it every year since. Some of my fellow fourth grade teachers have also picked it up, and it's become a classroom staple for all of us.

The game is relatively simple. Innings can occur every week or every other day, depending on your class's proficiency with the facts. First, students are divided into two teams. Then all players take four 36-fact timed tests (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). After the tests are graded, each team lines up to "bat." If a player has passed one test with 100%, he/she gets a single; two tests, a double; three, a triple; or four, a home run. No stealing is allowed, only forced runs. 

As our innings progress, the time for the tests gets shorter. We start with three minutes per test. You might be thinking, "Three minutes for a 36-problem test! That's too long!" Believe me, it's not too long for students coming off of summer vacation. They are really rusty! After three innings, we go down to two minutes, and for the final three innings, they only get one minute per test.

This game is motivational and fun, but like any other facts testing method, it can't be used in isolation. By third or fourth grade, most students know their addition and subtraction facts reasonably well. And once they know their multiplication facts, division easily follows. For these reasons, multiplication facts must be emphasized before and between innings of Math Facts Baseball.

It took me decades to get to this point, but I now believe that learning multiplication facts is easy. And I think that almost all fourth graders can do it. In the end, it all boils down to learning three facts. Here's why:

There are exactly 36 multiplication facts for factors of two through nine:
2x2, 2x3, 2x4, 2x5, 2x6, 2x7, 2x8, 2x9
3x3, 3x4, 3x5, 3x6, 3x7, 3x8, 3x9
4x4, 4x5, 4x6, 4x7, 4x8, 4x9
5x5, 5x6, 5x7, 5x8, 5x9
6x6, 6x7, 6x8, 6x9
7x7, 7x8, 7x9
8x8, 8x9

Most kids in intermediate grades know their twos and fives. If you subtract facts with factors of two or five, you're left with 21 facts.

Simple processes like skip counting make learning threes and fours relatively easy. Now you're left with ten facts. 

It's time to tackle the nines. Since nine is just one less than ten, a funny thing happens when you multiply by nine: the tens place goes up by one, and the ones place goes down by one. Have you ever noticed that the tens place is one less than the number you're multiplying and that the sum of the two digits always equals nine? This can be used to help students learn their nines. (For example: 3 x 9 = 27. See how 2 is one less than 3, and 2 + 7 = 9?) Guess what? Only six facts left.

Six facts. Seriously. If a student knows his twos, threes, fours, fives, and nines, only six facts remain.

Two of those can be learned by rhyming. Six times six is thirty-six, and six times eight is forty eight.

One more can be learned through a sequence: 5-6-7-8 (or 56 = 7 x 8). Three facts left. 

It's time to memorize. 6 x 7 = 42. 7 x 7 = 49. 8 x 8 = 64. That's it. Done!

If you'd like to present this idea to students, parents, or disbelieving colleagues, try this video from Math Playground. It explains it well.

Two programs on powerfully support our quest toward mastery. Quick Flash II ensures that each student knows all fact sets. Fact Navigator generates a 36-question test then records time and accuracy. (Click Check Your Progress with Quiz then on 9x9.) Because the student can self-monitor and take the test over and over again, it improves accuracy and fluency better than anything I've ever used. I highly recommend using these free programs!

As those bright and shiny faces appear at my classroom door, I feel confident that each and every one of them can and will master their facts in five short weeks. Strategic teaching of 36 facts, free products from, and Math Facts Baseball will make it happen.

Batter up!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Crafty Nonfiction Choice Boards

This year, I'm asking my students to read one nonfiction picture book each week. To make it more engaging, I decided to develop a choice board. Not your everyday run-of-the-mill choice board, but something really crafty!

informational text
(Available free at my Teachers pay Teachers store. Just click!)

My students will select one activity for each week of the first quarter. The choice board may also be used as an anchor, tic-tac-toe, or single choice activity. I purposefully left the directions rather open-ended to force kids to think about what they might do. This brings some creative and critical thinking into the picture. Two students may come up with widely diverse projects for the same square!

I couldn't wait to get started on these projects . . . so I decided to try them myself. Check out these pictures and instructions. I had so much fun!

vocabulary fortune teller

Cootie Catcher Vocabulary - Choose four key vocabulary words from the text. For each word, find two good synonyms. Build a cootie catcher. (Directions and pictures are easy to find on the Internet.) Write the vocabulary words on the outside squares and the small triangles. On the inside, write four facts that link the vocabulary words. (CCSS RI.3.4, RI.4.4)


Crafty Content Diagram  - Think about the main idea or structure of the book. Use construction paper to build a diagram that explains it to others. (CCSS RI.3.2, RI.4.2)

Paper Chain Summary - Cut strips of construction paper. Write one main concept or event from the book on each strip. Link them together (in order) to form a paper chain. (CCSS RI.3.2, RI.4.2)

Paper Bag Artifacts - Think about physical artifacts that would allow others to experience facts and ideas from the book. Decorate a paper bag and place at least eight items inside.

paper plate Venn diagram compare and contrast comparing and contrasting RI.3.9 RI 4.9

Paper Plate Compare/Contrast - You'll need to read two books with similar content for this activity. Connect two paper plates so that half of one plate overlaps the other. Write similarities between the books on the overlapping part and differences on the non-overlapping parts. (CCSS RI.3.9, RI.4.9)

Main Idea Sticky Notes  - Write the key ideas, principles, or events from the text on sticky notes. What main idea do these support? Stick the notes around the edge of a large index card and write the main idea in the middle. (CCSS RI.3.2, RI.4.2)

Question Cube - Think of three explaining questions and three inferring questions for the text. Write them on the squares of the question cube template. Cut around the edges, fold, and tape together. (CCSS RI.3.1, RI.4.1)

Claims and Evidence Fold and Cut - Fold a piece of construction paper in half lengthwise. Measure and cut the front only to form three (or four) flaps. On the inside, write three (or four) claims the author made, one under each flap. now cut each of the front sections into three strips. On the front, write three pieces of evidence, one on each strip, that the author used to support the claim that appears beneath them. (CCSS RI.4.8)


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Back-to-School Night Quote

"Education is a shared commitment between dedicated teachers, motivated students, and enthusiastic parents with high expectations." ~Bob Beauprez

I couldn't have said it any better. This quote will definitely make an appearance at my parent orientation meeting this year!

three-legged stool analogy parent support at school

I'll use the quote with this analogy. In order for a three-legged stool to stand, it needs support from all three legs. Enough said!

The countdown to a new school year has begun! Isn't it exciting?


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Hit the Road Running: Step 8

In teaching, nothing's written in stone. Our plans need to be adjusted for student needs. Creating solid standards-based units and lessons is a great way to prepare for the year, but we must be ready, willing, and able to change them.

Data Instruction Planning Present Levels

Beginning the year with summative pretests will let you know what big shifts need to take place. These pretests should include skills from your grade and skills from the grade before. This will let you know if you need to cancel entire units or add remedial units. It can really rock a teacher's world, but it's better to know and adjust up front.

Individual data will help you form flexible groups*. When the school year begins, you can use last year's data to get a feel for each student's present level. That way, you can provide appropriate materials and activities right off the bat. Groups should be flexible! As you collect more data and get to know your class, students may be shifted from one group to another.

Continuing to monitor students' progress will allow you to adapt instruction so that each student can reach new heights! Just remember "Goldilocks and the Three Bears": not too easy, not too hard, but just right!

I hope these eight steps will help you "Hit the Road Running"!


*A group simply refers to students who are working at the same level. This does not imply that students should be meeting together; instead, it means that they receive the same differentiation.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hit the Road Running: Step 7

Good teachers provide engaging, appropriate lessons tied to the standards; great teachers go one step farther to differentiate instruction and integrate opportunities for higher order thinking skills. Let's take a look at what this means.

Activities for all students should include some higher order thinking skills; activities for high ability students should include more. Research shows that incorporating the higher order thinking improves student learning (and takes their thinking to new heights). A wise educator once told me, "Use HOTS, not MOTS."

Higher Order Thinking Skills

Of course our students still need to know, understand, and be able to do. But it's important to take learning to the next level and ask them to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and create.

Three ways to incorporate HOTS into our classroom include problem solving, critical thinking, and creative thinking. Critical thinking involves collection and processing of information; creative thinking requires generating many ideas, striving to find something unique, and adding to the original idea(s).

Critical Creative Thinking Skills Higher Order Thinking

Fortunately, many of our standards have already built in HOTS. Here are some examples from the Common Core Reading: Literature standards for fourth grade:
  • RL.4.1 - Students must know how to read and understand the text, but they must also analyze the text to infer then defend their answers.
  • RL.4.2 - Students must summarize the text, but they must also analyze and synthesize to find the theme.
  • RL.4.9 - Students must analyze two texts then compare and contrast.
For these standards (and all of the CCSS Reading: Literature standards), students start with basic skills (knowing how to read and understand the text) then s-t-r-e-t-c-h to higher order thinking. For RL.4.1, students must analyze the text to determine how best to defend their answers. RL.4.2 has shades of creative and critical thinking because students must generate ideas for theme then evaluate their ideas to find the best representation of the story. RL.4.9 is full of HOTS! Students are working with two texts to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize. In my mind, every time we ask a student to construct a response, they are also involved in a very high level of thinking: creating.

It's a relief to know that HOTS are already in play when I ask my students to write responses or solve problems to address common national or state standards. This way, I don't need to worry about it quite as much. But . . . I still need to differentiate for my students' varying needs. 

Differentiation can take three forms: content, process, or product. Fortunately, differentiating just one of these can easily alter the lesson to address the needs of students in your classroom. 

Differentiation of Content Process Product

I tend to use content differentiation the most. This simply means asking students to read or learn material at a different level. To make my job a little easier, I might find or rewrite texts or math activities at several levels. That way I can teach just one lesson. It's more work up front, but it leaves me less frazzled during the school day. Or, when necessary, I use totally different content for different groups of learners in my classroom.

Process differentiation asks students to do something differently. For example, one group of students may be learning how to solve multiplication problems using the standard algorithm while another group uses  (or even tries to invent) alternative methods. Students may be asked to analyze text or take notes differently, conduct experiments using a range of skills, etc.

Differentiating the product simply means there's a different outcome. One group may write a sentence; another, a paragraph; and a third, a five-paragraph essay. Some students might create posters while others create PowerPoint presentations or develop their own websites.

Differentiation can occur in so many ways. Possibilities are limited only by your (and your students') imaginations. 

I'd like to show you how I differentiated my compare/contrast unit. Since it's a reading unit, I first thought of differentiating the content by writing the text at several levels. Folklore - - - fables, fairy tales, myths, etc. - - - are often familiar to children and can be conveyed simply. After much thought, I decided to use process differentiation instead.

All students will use the same structures to compare and contrast two pieces of literature: first a table to analyze elements, and then a Venn diagram to compare and contrast. Students on the low end will only be required to analyze, compare, and contrast characters, setting, and plot. Average and advanced students will also consider theme. To take my advanced students to a new height, they will also evaluate each element and determine its archetype.

Here are some examples of how average and advanced students' work might differ:

RL.4.9 Comparing Contrasting Folklore Differentiation

RL.4.9 Comparing Contrasting Folklore Differentiation

RL.4.9 Comparing Contrasting Folklore Differentiation Constructed Response

Taking these next steps - - - adding higher order thinking skills and differentiating - - - takes instruction from good to great. It's easy. Just put one foot in front of the other.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Hit the Road Running: Step 6

We're finally ready to plan student activities. That's the fun part! It took a lot of prep to get us to this point. Let's review what we've done so far: (1) unwrap the standards, (2) explore hows and whens of annual assessments, (3) consider how you will be evaluated, (4) make a year-long curriculum calendar, and (5) create the summative assessment.

When selecting and creating student activities, I take the tried-and-true formal approach. For each new skill, I like to provide direct instruction, guided practice, and plenty of independent practice before the final assessment. It's like learning to ride a bike. First I show them how (direct instruction), then they ride while I hold the bicycle and run along beside them (guided practice), and the next thing you know, they're sailing down the road on their own (independent practice).

The length of the unit depends on the skill. A mini-unit for a simple concept could take only a few days while a mega-unit for something complex might take a month or more.

Let's move back to the example I used in my previous posts. I was creating a unit to teach students to compare and contrast two pieces of folklore. First, I unwrapped the standard to determine what the students had to know and be able to do (identify elements then write a constructed response to explain their similarities and differences). Next, I wrote the assessment (to compare and contrast "The Tortoise and the Hare" and "The Race Between the Hummingbird and the Crane"). Now I need lessons.

To me, this is the most important part of the process. I had to think long and hard about the strategies and structures I'd use to guide my students to write that constructed response. Remember, I wanted them to identify elements then compare and contrast. I decided to start with a table for listing story elements then move to a Venn diagram for comparing and contrasting.

For consistency, I would use these same organizers in my direct instruction, guided practice, and independent practice. As my students gained confidence in this skill, they could create their own organizers; some may be able to do it in their heads. 

I chose ten more stories: two to compare for direct instruction, two for guided practice, and six more for three rounds of independent practice. Everything's beginning to fit in place. My lessons match the assessment, and my assessment addresses the standard.

Now it's your turn. Happy planning!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Hit the Road Running: Step 5

Don't put the cart before the horse. Prior to planning a unit, find or design the assessment. A summative unit test should be based on unwrapped standards and reflective of questions students may encounter on standardized tests.

As an example, let's go back to the standard that was unwrapped in my July 6th post.

The standard asks my students to compare and contrast similar themes and topics in stories from different cultures. When I unwrapped the standard, I interpreted it to mean that my students would identify elements in each text (characters, setting, plot, and theme) then find similarities and differences. I knew from experience that the state tests require a constructed response for this type of task. Since I didn't have a test like this, I would have to make one myself.

The task itself wouldn't be too hard. For the assessment, I'd just have to ask students to compare and contrast two pieces of literature. I chose a well-known fable, "The Tortoise and the Hare," and a Native American version, "The Race Between Hummingbird and Crane." (You can find public domain literature at Project Gutenberg.)

For this standard, I had to create my own assessment. This is not always true. Some of the tests that come with your textbooks can be used as-is; some require only a little tweaking. You can find other tests online or at sites such as Teachers pay Teachers. The important thing is to make sure the test reflects the standards and questions that may be asked on standardized tests.

Here's a handy tool for creating ELA tests. Lexington School District Four has created an Instructional Toolkit. Templates for each grade level have unwrapped Reading Literature (RL), Reading Informational (RI), Writing (W), Speaking and Listening (SL), and Language (L) standards in order to concisely describe types of questions that should be asked and/or what students must know or be able to do.

Evaluating every test you use and revising/creating as necessary may seem like a daunting task, but it can be conquered. Just take it one test at a time.

Good luck!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Hit the Road Running: Step 4

Once you're familiar with what you need to teach, how and when your students will be assessed, and how you will be evaluated, it's time to create a long-range plan. Simply chunk out major units and arrange them on a year-long calendar.

Everything's better with friends! Working with colleagues energizes instructional planning. Our team started our curriculum calendar a few weeks ago. We decided to go week by week.

You can see that we're just getting started. In order to get to this point, we had ask serious questions:
  • What needs to be reviewed before we cover required standards?
  • Which standards must be taught first (and second, third, fourth…)?
  • Which resources are best for teaching those standards?
  • What other standards are supported by those resources?
  • What new resources will we need?
  • Which units are easy (for the beginning of the year) or difficult (for the end of the year)?
  • Which units should be taught simultaneously (or consecutively)?
  • Which units involve big student projects? (We didn't want to schedule two of those at the same time.)
  • Which units need to be taught just before testing?
  • Which units can be taught after testing?
  • How will we name the units on our calendar?
I have found that asking questions like these to create a year-long curriculum calendar really improve my planning (and teaching!) Doing what makes sense to this group of teachers who teach this population of students in this district is essential. Everyone's journey will look a little different - - - the benefit is in deep reflection on your instructional plan.

For us, the next step is to list information about each unit. We decided to share everything on a website, developed free with Google Sites. Each topic on our calendar link (or will link) to another page like this: 

The page for each big unit of study includes texts, materials, and/or resources; units of instruction (direct instruction of specific standards); key standards; additional standards addressed; assessment; and links.

Our team is rewriting (but not totally recreating) the entire curriculum for our high ability program this year. Therefore, our approach to creating a curriculum calendar will likely be more time-consuming than yours. I hope it has given you some food for thought.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Hit the Road Running: Step 3

The next step in planning for your school year is knowing your teacher assessment expectations. Educator evaluations many times contain criteria for planning.

In my state, the planning portion of the teacher effectiveness rubric makes up 10% of the total. That doesn't seem like much, but planning has a big impact on instruction, which carries a weight of 75%.

Five planning competencies are spelled out in my state rubric. Let's take a look at them and consider how this will affect the steps I take this summer:

  1. Utilize assessment data to plan
  2. Set ambitious and measurable goals
  3. Develop standards-based unit plans and assessments
  4. Create objective-driven lesson plans and assessments
  5. Track student data and analyze progress
Competencies 1, 2, and 5 deal with data for the specific students I will teach. Since I don't have a class list or data for my 2014-2015 class, the only competencies I'll need to consider this summer are 2 and 3.

Competency 3 asks me to use backward planning* to develop unit plans. I need to start with a standard, find or develop a summative assessment, and consider the student activities that I'll use to teach the concepts. In my state, teachers may achieve an "effective" rating by using ready-made units, but to be classified as "highly effective," they must create their own.

Competency 4 deals with creating plans for each individual lesson. For a "highly effective" rating, I'll need to include differentiation and formative assessment.

Teachers may ask, "Does this mean that I need to develop formal lesson plans for every lesson of every unit I teach?" No. You can use units written by others and/or textbook units. It's your job, however, to make sure the assessment reflects the standards and that each lesson prepares students for that assessment. To work toward a "highly effective" rating, start with one unit, develop it well, and then move on to the next one. You know that Rome wasn't built in a day, and creating unit plans is a time-consuming endeavor.

Checking my teacher assessment expectations steers me toward some important planning this summer. I need to look over the unit plans I already teach, think about what needs to be changed . . . and, if I'm ambitious, create one or two complete unit plans of my own.

There's no time like the present! Take a peek at the expectations for your evaluation, and make a plan!

*Backward planning is a term used in Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Briefly, it means creating the assessment first then writing the unit plans.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Hit the Road Running: Step 2

Understanding how and when your students will be tested is essential. Before you plan anything for this school year, head to your state's assessment website and start digging around. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

To begin your quest for testing information, simply search the name of your state and the word "assessment." (If your state is a part of PARRC, you can start your search here.) 

Let's take a look at my search. With one click, I discovered a gold mine of information! 

ELA and Math Blueprints list what will be tested:

Item Samplers provide sample questions:

Test dates are also posted. I see that my students will take the Applied Skills (requiring constructed responses) between March 2nd and March 11th. Then they will take the Multiple Choice portion of the test between April 27th and May 6th.

Taking a little bit of time to search assessment sites arms me with important information:
  • Knowing what will be tested guides content selection.
  • Knowing types and format of assessment questions provides instructional focus.
  • Knowing when students will be tested drives yearlong planning.
Yes, teaching is now driven by academic standards and standardized testing. Like it or not, to succeed in today's classroom, we need to begin annual planning with information about what our students need to know and do.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Hit the Road Running: Step 1

Job #1 for every teacher is knowing what they must teach. This is essential. An educator must read the standards, study the standards, understand the standards, and organize everything he or she teaches to address the standards.

In order to better understand the implications of each standard, it must be "unwrapped." What does this mean? Another term for "unwrap" is "dissect." You have to take the standard apart and think hard about what it's telling your students (and you) to do.

Many districts have taken the time to unwrap the standards for their teachers, and this becomes a handy tool. In my experience, however, the actual act of unwrapping provides a deeper understanding of what my students need to know and be able to do. As I study the standards, a million connections go through my head, which allows me to feel confident in the materials, activities, and assessments I choose for my students.

With that in mind, I recommend that every teacher spend time studying and unwrapping the standards. It's not something that you can do in one day, but for every unit you tackle, it's the first step.

How can a standard be unwrapped? You can start with these simple steps:
  1. Read the standard.
  2. Underline nouns that tell what students must know.
  3. Circle verbs that tell what students must be able to do.
  4. Pay attention to other important directions given in the standard.
For example, I've been working on a unit for RL.4.9. Here's how my brain processed the standard.

As you go through this process, other instructional tenets will pop up. You'll naturally begin to think about higher order thinking skills associated with each of the standards. You'll wonder about the "Big Ideas" that connect standards and subject areas. You'll consider the types of differentiation that may occur as you teach the standard. Jotting down all of your ideas may help when you're ready to plan units of study.

Check out these resources for more information on unwrapping the standards:

Happy Unwrapping!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Hit the Road Running: Eight Steps to Prepare for the School Year

When school begins, I'd like to hit the road running. But how can a teacher be truly prepared?

Over the next few days, I'll be discussing each step. Won't you join me?